Friday's defusing of the three-week military standoff in Najaf has the disappointing result that Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his militia survive to fight another battle, threatening US military forces and the fledgling Iraqi government.
Experience shows the firebrand cleric has ignored promises to disarm, and is perfectly willing to call up his forces again. Sadr's popularity soared after he led an uprising in April. This month's confrontation could solidify or enhance his standing, for in the eyes of many Iraqis, not losing to the American occupying force is just as good as a win.
Yet in this case, the avoidance of a military showdown was worth the risk of an undefeated Sadr. The core of the conflict between US and Iraqi forces surrounding the revered Shrine of Imam Ali and the Sadr militia holed up inside the shrine was nothing less than the political future of Iraq. Will it be a theocracy, as Sadr envisions, or a representative democratic government, as President Bush and the new government in Iraq have in mind?
A military conflagration, especially involving an occupying power, can't truly answer this question. That needs to be worked out by the Iraqis themselves and through the political process.
Najaf presented the first big test for Iraqis wrestling with their future. Who came out on top is debatable. But all the Iraqi players involved - the new government, the new assembly set up to oversee the government, Sadr, and the day-saving Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - opted for the political process. That's a victory, for now.